The priest moved to the Gospel side of the altar. He began to chant the Gospel. My four-year-old daughter turned to look at me with big eyes.
“Daddy, who is that?”
“Who is who, baby?”
“Is that Jesus?”
“Is who Jesus?”
“The man who’s singing. Is that Jesus?”
I smiled at her. “Yes, it is.”
Yesterday my family and I attended the only Latin Mass offered in our diocese. I had been once before with my eldest daughter, but this was the first time my youngest and wife came also. It was a sweet moment. We’re tempted to say, “Oh how cute and innocent children are.” But before we too quickly dismiss this as kids being cute, I would like for us to consider something.
I want to consider the wonder of the worship of the Church.
When the Church gathers for worship on Sunday, we are participating in the worship of the Church as she has worshiped for ages past, as she is worshiping now around the throne of Heaven and receiving a small foretaste of how she will worship in eternity.
There is a great mystery here. We too quickly move on from it to our great detriment. I fear that, in the modern Catholic Church, we have lost sight of what is really happening when we come to Mass. Some of that truncated and selfish view of worship I blame on the liturgy and some I blame on a lack of proper teaching and catechesis.
We have failed miserably in teaching our faith to those who are currently in the Church. This has been an ongoing problem for some time. We have failed to catechize and the clergy, in many instances, have failed to preach and teach well. It is no wonder that, according to the Pew Research findings, only 31% of Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We haven’t taught our people what the Church actually believes. We’ve just told them to show up and do as they’re told and don’t ask questions.
It’s no wonder there’s no wonder. It’s no wonder Mass feels dry and dull. It’s the Church’s fault.
Which brings me back to my youngest this past Sunday.
She intuitively senses that something mysterious is happening when we come to Mass (the Latin Mass). She is more imaginative than me, less impeded by modernity and cynicism. She feels the symbolic, nay the realism, going on at the altar when the priest stands in persona Christi, praying and speaking on behalf of his people. We’ve lost that in our modern liturgy. We’ve lost something instinctive, something primal, something holy and transcendent in our worship.
My good friend, Ben Harris, writes it this way:
“For many years, we have been told about a "springtime of the Church", an age in which we were finally ready to take on the world with our "new evangelism" after the long winter of old Christendom. This springtime, the warming of the world, and shattering of barriers was heralded to be the end of militant, defensive Catholicism: a day when we could cease guarding ancient coals with tenacious diligence to sow gospel seeds into fertile ground. And, during the tenuous peace of a post-Second World War era, the temptation to see society as entering a new age must have been overwhelming. At the dawn of the Second Vatican Council, the West had moved from decades of industrial warfare, societal collapse, the death of old Christian monarchies, economic devastation, and genocide into an era of relative peace and prosperity. I am sure that, to the Council Fathers, everything must have been telling them that our "springtime" had finally come... but springtime is never as cut and dry as that.
We were promised an ecclesiastical springtime, and that's exactly what we got. In the temptation of sunny days, we let the warm fire of tradition grow cold, failed to gather more wood to keep the hearths burning, and hastily planted our gardens, only to be left wondering how our seedlings could be buried under snow as we shiver by dying coals. Our springtime optimism was dashed by the bitter north-winds of communism, secularism, the sexual revolution, corrupted clergy, and rising persecution of Christianity in the heart of old Christendom. Like the disciples, we went with Christ into a cheering Jerusalem, only to see him crucified as we ran from his presence.
Still, there is work to be done. We cannot cower in disappointment and let the coals of tradition burn out because our hasty planting has died in the ice of modernity. Through study and liturgical reverence, we gather fuel to rebuild the fire of tradition into a blazing inferno; through our prayers, we carefully cover the tender plants to keep them safe from frost; through our evangelism, we open the door of our warm home to those shivering in the unexpected snow. Now is not the time to experiment and rush to plant new fields, but to remain faithful, prudent, and dedicated to age-old ways. If, like the Blessed Mary and St. John, we remain close to Christ and return to the tradition he gave to us, we will behold the Church in her resurrection with her risen Lord.
In the various traditional rites of the Church, be they Latin, Byzantine, Maronite, Anglican, etc., there is an air of wintertime sobriety. The cold rains of post-modern chaos, political extremism, heresy, paganism, and moral degeneracy pour outside, but in these ancient liturgies the fires of tradition sustain the family of God in health and safety. There is no place for experimental optimism either in the ancient Mass, or in the present crisis of the Church. Our task of wintertime labor has not yet given way to the ease of warm days and late sunsets, so return to the warmth of tradition, brave the snowy wind of the world, and fulfill the duty you have been given.”
The wonder of the warmth of tradition is that it teaches us something on a primal, even soul level that we cannot possibly hope to fully explain. We are formed by the tactile reality of the movements of our bodies: kneeling, making the sign of the cross on our bodies, genuflecting, bowing, opening our mouth and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The wonder of the practice of our faith we see when the priest faces the altar, on our behalf, and offers up the present sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world, as it has been done in the liturgy of the Church for the last 2000 years.
Our children see that and feel that in an unadulterated and beautiful way that we would do well to learn from. In the traditional liturgies of the Church, we are (in the words of my friend Ben) “infantililzed”, not feeding ourselves with our own hands but being fed by the loving hands of a Saviour and brought into the warm embrace of a loving Father. We are not in control and that is a very good thing.
“Daddy, is that Jesus?”
Yes, my daughter.
That is Jesus, dying on the cross for the sins of the world.
That is Jesus, standing even now at the throne of God pleading His own shed blood.
That is Jesus, calling His brothers and sisters to pray and kneel and bow and weep before Him.
That is Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, come in the flesh so that you and I may literally embrace the wonder of salvation right before our very eyes.
That is Jesus whom we receive at the altar when we kneel in humble submission, understanding that we cannot feed ourselves.
That is Jesus and He is the wonder of it all.
Thanks be to God!
I have cried watching movies before.
I mean, if we’re being honest. The most recent time I cried watching a movie was at Easter, this year, when I watched, again, “The Passion of The Christ.” I was, and still am, in the latter stages of officially joining the Catholic Church and still kind of processing some things in my mind and heart. There comes the scene in the movie where Jesus’ cross is being lifted up and the scene flashes back and forth between the crucifixion and the Last Supper. As Jesus’ cross is lifted up, we see the scene where He lifts up the bread He will break and we see the lights come on for the Apostle John. It’s a powerful scene and I broke down. I tell that story to illustrate what I'm talking about today...
As my journey into the rich tradition of the Church deepened, I ran into another kind of hurdle.
First off, I didn’t even know that that meant. I had to look up the word Eucharist. Basically, it means “thanksgiving.” It’s a little more complex than that but that’s the basic meaning. Most Protestants call it “The Lord’s Supper,” or “Communion.”
I want to say very clearly here before I go much further: In discussing the Holy Eucharist, we must approach with great caution. Here’s what I mean by that. We are delving into things that are very great mysteries that we will never, on this side of the Parousia, fully understand. Having said that, this is really important and there are a lot of things about the Holy Eucharist that we can understand. Furthermore, what we cannot always understand by reason, we can accept by faith. My treatment on this post of the Holy Eucharist will by no means be exhaustive. Tomes have been written on this by many people way smarter than me. My intent is not to give a full theological treatment to this topic; rather, to discuss very briefly how I came to this position.
I want to begin this one, not by talking about Church history even though the Church has had much to say about this matter, but by considering the words of our Lord first. If you have a Bible, I suggest reading John 6 to start.
Once you read that, I think we’re pretty much done here.
Ha! I’m kidding. In all seriousness, that text is pretty clear. Jesus was abundantly clear. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. He said (paraphrasing slightly), “You have to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” And, by the way, there was no mistaking what He said. It’s pretty clear from the text that the Jews knew exactly what He meant by what He said. In fact, it was so clear to them that they were like, “Is this dude nuts? We can’t eat his flesh and drink his blood.” Notice that Jesus didn’t back down. He didn’t say, “You’re misunderstanding me guys. I was speaking metaphorically. I didn’t mean what you think that means. It’s symbolic only.” He didn’t say that. In fact, He doubled down. And that’s when everybody started leaving. Do we really think people would leave if Jesus was speaking metaphorically?
Now let’s consider the Last Supper, at which Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist. You can read Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22 and even 1 Corinthians 11. I want us to first look at what Jesus said. This is super important.
Can I just be really brutally honest? One of the things that I became really frustrated with within my former Protestant tradition was a lack of taking seriously the plain meaning of the text of Holy Scripture. I mean, my Baptist people had no problem taking some texts literally but then the ones that made them uncomfortable were explained away by, “Well that’s not what that means.” Enough of that, back to the text…
Read those texts. What did Jesus say? He said, “This is My body….This is My blood.” He did not say, “This represents My body and blood” or “This is a memorial of My body and blood” or any other linguistic gymnastics Protestants want to do with this. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, said very plainly, “This is My body…This is My blood.”
I should just drop the mic and walk away now. I mean, really. Doesn’t this pretty much settle any debate, erase all doubts? It should.
What’s the point you may ask? Why is it necessary that Jesus do this and ask us to do this?
“He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages and to entrust to the Church his Spouse a memorial of his death and resurrection.” (USCCB)
But isn’t it just bread and wine? I mean, it’s not really Jesus’ body and blood, is it? Why would something so “crass” be true? Why can’t it just be symbolic?
Because that’s not what Jesus has given us.
Because God inhabits and uses physical matter to give to us His grace. Water for baptism, bread and wine for sustenance. God uses His creation. I mean, He came in the flesh after all.
As I ran headlong into this, I was astounded to learn that the unanimous position of the early Church was of the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
There is so much more I could say, so very much more. But this is a blog post, not a doctoral dissertation. I am happy to recommend resources for you if you want to learn and study more.
For me, this has become an unspeakable comfort to me. Now I don’t have to conjure up some emotional feeling. Now I don’t have to wonder, “Is Jesus really here with us as we worship?” Now I don’t have to close my eyes and try really hard to imagine a spiritual concept. No, I have, we have, the Church has, before her very eyes week after week, day after day, a flesh and blood physical reminder…nay, the very body, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus and not merely a reminder.
We have been given a very great gift by our Lord, Church! We have this most blessed assurance of the presence of our Lord in His very body, blood, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament! Oh Church, what a gift of His grace!
Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world! Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!